Prof. Ellen Bluestone
10 June 2013
Psychoanalytical Criticism and Heart of Darkness: Kurtz, Freud and the Dionysian Myth – A Journey into the Nightmare of Darkness and the Subconscious
It is natural to approach the critical analysis of a novel in terms of dream theory and the work of prominent dream theorists. Like dreams, novels are created in the mind, they are simply inventions of the mind; though by definition are not exactly literally and not exactly true. A dream may have to be interpreted before the truth of the dream can be fully grasped by the reader. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness consisting of approximately 38,000 words seems at first an unremarkable story because Conrad gives us so much to focus on other than what he slips into the story, but Heart of Darkness is a remarkable story because it is a book of extraordinary intensity because it resembles a nightmare, a momentary nocturnal vision that transforms the ordinary light of day. To bring this nightmare from the darkness into the light, I have chosen to focus on both the characters of Marlow and Kurtz and to apply the Dionysian myth in combination with psychoanalytical theory to bring the nightmare to the forefront. It is Kurtz who is at the epicenter of this nightmare, who journeys into the darkness of the pool that consists of our subconscious selves. Conrad was constantly interested in the effect of the imagination in men. Through Kurtz, Conrad evokes a surging of extremes from his idealistic paper on the “Suppression of Savage Customs”, he added a postscript in an unsteady hand, “Exterminate the brutes” (Conrad 75). It is these extremes of vision, this nightmare, this Dionysian decent into the black pool, and the journey that Kurtz takes from the status of enlightened European traditions to the most vindictive human instincts gives Conrad’s story its extensive dimensions and lasting reverberation as a completely unique psychoanalytical piece of literature. Although the story Conrad wrote has been described as a dream, specifically as a nightmare, and with the inclusion of the Dionysus myth in terms of analysis and adding the term psychoanalysis makes the story sound frightening to a reader of the twenty first century compared to a reader of Conrad’s time. But the story has an exciting adventure element to it in that it does reveal the exploration of an unexplored (at the time) continent. “Before the Congo, I was a mere animal” Conrad stated (xi) and it is the journey into the Congo that Conrad himself embarked on that constitutes a journey in to the self, a recorded history of human conscience and exploration. The story is about Kurtz and Kurtz serves a symbolic role as a ghost in Marlow’s nightmare evidenced by the fact that Marlow states “No, it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone” (Conrad 50). Up to this juncture, Heart of Darkness is an attempt to do the impossible, provide for us, twenty first century readers, a meaning to a dream. However, to gain further perspective, the focus needs to shift slightly onto the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung who published after Heart of Darkness was written (and published) and therefore can be argued that Conrad preceded both Freud and Jung. Psychoanalytic literary criticism has its origins in the writings of Sigmund Freud who established the system of psychoanalysis and many authors and literary critics have been influenced by his work. Freud spent the greater part of his life and his research on discovering the unconscious of our inner self. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s pursuit of identity is consistent with the psychoanalytic theory that human identity lies inside the psyche. Freud argues in his book The Interpretation of Dreams that “dreams are in conflict with the unconscious self (Freud 32). As Ross Murfin argues “an author may write in order to gratify some forbidden wish (Murfin 113-123). This unconscious wish makes its way into the text by the “process of displacement” (Ibid). Murfin further states that in order to uncover an author’s wish, a critic would utilize some of the methods Freud used to uncover the dream wish. By employing some of the techniques of Freud, the critic may discover that a text, initially ambiguous in meaning, involves several different interpretations (Ibid). As Marlow advances into the jungle, his psychological desires change. Kurtz is the psychological purpose of Marlow’s desire and from a Freudian point of view it can be inferred the darkness of Africa stands for conscious fear and Kurtz’ female African mistress stands for Marlow’s sexual desire. With the death of Kurtz, Marlow transforms into something we as the reader would not have previously conceived was possible- he becomes a fraud. When Marlow returns to Europe, he fraudulently states to Kurtz’ Intended about Kurtz last words suggesting that Marlow has lost the enlightened Western principles he holds so dear prior to his immersion and has thus converted to a savage with a primitive state of mind. Frederick Karl writes that “Marlow’s journey is a clear example of an expression of Conrad’s impulse, unconscious impulse, to express his view as an artist who employs images analogous to Freud in order to present a diagnosis of modern European society as fundamentally driven by irrational impulses” (Karl 28). Marlow’s trip is therefore a quest for himself and the African jungle is an emblem for the inanimate mind. Furthermore, his trip is an endeavor to scrutinize the expanse of his own inanimate mind (Karl 115). Karl writes further that Kurtz himself is a dramatization of Marlow’s conscious desire, as the Freudian Id (Ibid). According to Freudian ideas, the truth of human experiences and difficulties in communication appears in dreams. Freud investigated dreams which are consistent with Marlow’s assertion that in “dreams the truth of human experience lies (Conrad 112). Marlow and Kurtz are two contrasting aspects of the self. Kurtz stands for the Id (the desire to satisfy instinct) and Marlow stands for the Ego (the human unconscious). It seems natural to make a correlation between imagination and novels. As readers, we can live through novels, identifying with characters, swept away by vivid landscapes, wrap ourselves in the warm (or cold) blanket of a thick plot, essentially like dreams, we live vicariously through fictions. But what about nightmares? Nightmares change us in much the same way, submerging us into a nebulous world that continues to clutch us even after the novel has been finished. Conrad biographer Frederick Karl writes that “Conrad penetrated… the darkness entered into when people sleep, when they are free to pursue secret wishes”, that, like the content of dreams, Heart of Darkness, “forms itself around distortion, condensation, and displacement” (Karl 28) and the setting on the riverboat presents to us a nightmare (Ibid). The work of Sigmund Freud is one reason to think of literary works in terms of dreams. Most of us at one point, especially as graduate students of English; have referred to his theories at some point or another. Therefore, essentially we are all psychoanalytical commentators. Freud’s theories can be directly or indirectly applied to the unconscious mind. Freud did not invent the unconscious but went further by suggesting the power that motivates men and women for that matter derives mainly from the unknown. Freud then took and developed an old idea – essentially that the human mind is dual in nature (Freud 89). The Id or “it”, one side of the duality, is predominantly passion, irrationality, unknown, and an unconscious part of the psyche. The ego or “I”, was Freud’s term for the predominantly rational, logical, orderly part of the conscious (Freud 89). The superego is a third component, outside the duality that is a projection of the ego. It is the part that makes moral judgments, tells us that sacrifice is the cause of justice, whether logical or rational, is good and lies outside the self. In essence, the superego tells what to do. What the ego and superego combine to do in terms of telling us what not to do gets suppressed into the unconscious (Freud 91). Arguably, Freud’s most important contribution to psychoanalytical theory is the theory of repression. The theory of repression is based upon the concept that what exists in the unconscious has been put there by the conscious, which serves as a censor, directing instincts or conscious/unconscious thoughts it deems unacceptable into a “mind lock box” for lack of a better term (Freud 93). Examples of ideas that would be placed in the lock box are what Freud calls “infantile sexual desires” (Bettleheim 46). According to Freud, these ideas delegated to a repressed unconscious state only emerge in disguised forms: in dreams, in language (the Freudian slip), in creative activity that produces art such as literature, and in neurotic behavior (Freud 38). According to Freud, all of us have repressed wishes and fears and of course we all have dreams in which repressed materials emerge disguised (Freud 93). Infantile sexuality, for example, is the notion that sexuality begins not at puberty, with physical maturing, but in infancy (Barry 97). Barry argues that this is connected to what Freud calls the Oedipus Complex, whereby, says Freud, “the male infant conceives the desire to eliminate the father and become the sexual partner of the mother” (Barry 97). According to Roy P. Basler in Sex, Symbolism and Psychology in Literature, “From the beginning of recorded history such wishes have been restrained by the most powerful religions and social taboos, and as a result have become regarded as ‘unnatural’”, even though “Freud found that such wishes are characteristic of human development” (14). Freud’s beliefs were not original, a point that bears repetition, but it was the depth to which he elaborated his theories and as a result allowed him to discover far more than the function of dreams that renders his influence on works such as Heart of Darkness. Therefore, psychoanalytical criticism’s application to literature not only begins on the work of Freud, psychoanalytical criticism could arguably begin with Freud who had a great interest in writers who used symbology in their works. Nonetheless, it spurned a movement in literary criticism. The literal surface of a work is sometimes spoken of as its “manifest content” and treated as a “manifest of a dream” or a “dream story” (Bettlheim 52) and in this fashion would be considered by a psychoanalytical critic. Just as the analyst tries to figure out the “dream thought” behind the dream story – that is, the latent content hidden in the manifest dream – the psychoanalytic literary critic tries to expose the latent, underlying content of a work (Bettlheim 54). Freud used the words “condensation” and “displacement” to explain two of the mental processes whereby the mind disguises its wishes and fears through dream stories (Freud 35). In terms of condensation, several thoughts or persons may be condensed into a single manifestation or image in a dream story (Freud36). In displacement, an anxiety or wish or person may also be displaced onto the image of another, with which or whom it is loosely connected through a string of associations that only an analyst can untangle (Freud36). The psychoanalytic literary critic treats metaphors as if they were dream condensations; they treat metonyms – figures of speech based upon loose, arbitrary associations – as if they were dream displacements (Weiss 23). Thus, figurative literary language in general is treated as something that evolves as the writer’s conscious mind resets what the unconscious tells it to picture or describe (Weiss 23). A symbol, according to Daniel Weiss, is a “meaningful concealment of truth as the truth promises to emerge as some frightening or forbidden idea” (20). In determining the nature of the text, the psychoanalyst literary critic focuses on the text as dream but the emphasis shifts from an assumption that dreams have inherent meaning in the manner of literature towards a more complex assumption. Meredith Skura writes in The Literary Uses of the Psychoanalytic Process “as Freud moves from the dream to its association, we find that the paths of movement are really quite similar” (181). Skura argues further that dreams are viewed more as a language than as symptoms of repression (181). In conclusion, dreams become something we may study psychoanalytically and critically to learn about literature, even as we study literature to learn more about the unknown aspects of our self. Frederich Karl’s article Introduction to the Dance Macabre: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness focuses on the psyche of Kurtz, the “savage mind, Marlow’s mind, the collective mentality of the European imperialism, the mind of the reader and the general human soul as if they were an interlocking set of bricks – each one different from and yet a characteristic extension of the others (Karl, Introduction to the Dance Macabre: Conrad's Heart of Darkness 144). Ultimately for Karl, Marlow’s condition and by extension Kurtz’ is the human one, representing the “collective neuroses” of “a people”, indeed, representing “a world irrational and out of focus” in spite of its “seeming rationality” (Karl, Introduction to the Dance Macabre: Conrad's Heart of Darkness 148). If, according to Freud’s argument, one of the irrational focuses driving the human will is sexual, then in Heart of Darkness there is a desire for orgiastic, uncontrolled sexual repression that is not only “represented by the jungle woman, by her wanton, demon-like, display sex” but also by the river and jungle, the penetration of each representing some “unspeakable sexual encounter with the female (Ibid 149). However, according to Karl, it is not simply an unconscious, uncontrollable will to sex that Conrad depicts in Heart of Darkness (ibid 151). In Kurtz, Conrad represents an extreme form of the will to power, the desire for mastery which the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed characterized all human behavior. According to Karl, Kurtz’ “savage career” is “every man’s wish fulfillment” (Ibid 152). In Freudian terms, it fulfills the desire of the Id to get out from under the censor of controls of the psyche, Ego, and Superego, those censory agents of the psyche that have learned to tell it “thou shall not post skulls of dead men as fence posts” (Ibid 152). Conrad and Freud are of one mind when dealing with the “darkness”, for Conrad’s darkness is Freud’s unconscious and both believed that human beings were motivated by the irrational side of the mind. Whereas Freud focused on dreams, Conrad focuses on creating images usually experienced in dreams. According to Karl, Conrad carefully controlled the images he made providing for an artistic text (Ibid 156). However, having established a foundation of Freud’s theories, distinguished between the role of the psychoanalytic critic who employs these techniques in its application to literary works or art and supplied insight from a leading psychoanalytic critic on the Heart of Darkness who argues that Conrad “controlled” the images, the argument now shifts to the symbol and images that Conrad controlled which was the myth of Dionysus. R.D. Laing is the most important critic in what can be called the “meeting with Dionysus, the acceptance of the potential transfigurer (54) but it is William Guthrie that gives us the best insight into the Dionysus myth. Guthrie writes: “Dionysus is the most puzzling and disturbing of all mythic figures. Myth is embodied with elements of mystery and elusiveness; it contains an edge of shadow that frustrates single definition. But in the case of Dionysus, the absence of a hard-edged, single meaning is strikingly blatant. He is a terrible and destructive force (think Belgian ivory trade and impact on native population), but on occasion he is effeminate (think sexual desires and Freud). Dionysus brings the blessings of horticulture, he founds cities, but he demolishes kingdoms; he demands total allegiance, but he destroys all other forms of rule and order. This paradox is central to his nature. The variety and contradictions inherent in the worship of Dionysus are at the heart of his meaning (Guthrie 145).
Guthrie writes further:
“Dionysus presents us with the spectacle of annual festivals in the towns or fields in spring- and with biennial festivals on the bare mountain-tops in winter; with daylight celebrations and torchlight midnight rovings; it has its joyous and bountiful side and its grim and gruesome side, for the same god is hailed as the giver of all good gifts and feared as the eater of raw flesh and the man-tearer; he has animal incarnations, aniconic forms closely connected with tree-worship, a definite connection with ships and the sea, he offers ecstasy and spiritual union and wild intoxication in which he himself is the leader, so that he can be called mad, the raving god; at the same time what disconcerts his adversaries and singles him out from the them is an uncanny stillness and calm, and stillness and calm too are the gifts he bestows on his infatuated worshippers; sexual license as a feature of his orgia is now admitted, now denied; his frenzied women votaries, in the passionate abandonment of his service, take young beasts in their arms and with maternal tenderness give them breasts – the same women who with scarcely conceivable savagery tear the limbs from the young creatures who fasten their teeth on them” (Guthrie 146).
Dionysus is the “enigmatic god, the spirit of dual nature and paradox” ( (Otto 73). To begin, the recurrent motifs of the myth of Dionysus are that he comes straightaway and clashes with the guardian of order, he often appears in disguise, making preparation for arrival even more challenging; his disguises vary from the terrible to the seductive and pandemonium, frequently music, trances and loss of self-identity characterize his revelries. There is an insistent connection with water and with women, but most important is the feature of irrationality: he is the frenzied deity, his followers are hysterical, and he destroys those that oppose him with recklessness. But this brief analysis does not satisfy the question of whom or what this figure truly is: he is the unconscious itself.
The language of the collective unconscious, when it crosses the threshold that separates it from the conscious state according to Carl Jung, is primarily myth; it is in the symbols of myth that the vast array of psychic energy reveals itself (Jung 151). Jung writes further “The collective unconscious… appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations ate its real exponents. In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious” (Jung 152). “The collective unconscious is an extension of the man beyond himself, a death of personal being and a rebirth in a new dimension” (Ibid 212).
The psyche is a complex, self-regulating organism, striving to continually form a realization of its whole self. Thinking, feeling, sensing; instinct and intellect, consciousness and unconsciousness – they are all part of the entire personality. If any part is excluded, denied, ignored, then the primal drive to reaffirm the whole self will assert itself. Should the conscious mind attempt to relegate or censor the instinctual forces to the dark chambers (the lock box), those instinctual forces will assert themselves to correct the imbalance. “Whenever life proceeds one-sidedly in any given direction, the self-regulation of the organism produces in the unconscious an accumulation of all those factors which play too small a part in the individual’s conscious existence” (Ibid 158). Jung writes further that the further we remove ourselves from the unconscious with our enlightenment and our rational superiority, the more it fades into the distance, but is made all the more perfect by everything that falls into it. This last bit of nature seeks revenge” (Ibid 162).
We sit in the safety of our civilized world content to maintain the ordered regularity of our lives. All the while, the Dionysus keeps appearing to us in different shapes, telling us to leave our sanctuary of orderliness and join his party. The question is will we listen: Kurtz certainly listened, intently listened to the voice calling him. R.D. Laing writes “We are a generation of men, so estranged from the inner world that many argue that it does not exist; and that even if it does exist, it does not matter” (54). The partition between here and there, now and then, civilized man and Dionysiac man, conscious and unconscious are thin and easily crossed. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is about a traverse but moreover it is about a dual pilgrimage into the undisclosed self. One is alarming, culminating in the destruction of personality and physical death; the other is palliative, producing enlightenment, acting as a portal to the profusion of self. Conrad in his novella has annexed the paradoxical manner of the descent into the unknown, affirming in the two characters of Kurtz and Marlow, the two faces of Dionysus: “liberator and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death” (Ibid 133). On Kurtz, Conrad has created a monumental version of Western man; a rationalist, a technocrat of boundless ego, a colonizer not only of the African soil but of the African soul. “He is a prodigy,” says one of his colleagues in the Company, a European establishment devoted to the exploitation and “civilizing” of the African interior. “He is an emissary of piety and science and progress, and devil knows what else” (Conrad 41). Kurtz has been allowed by the Company (a symbol for the myopic empire building fixation of Western Europe that still remains as an albatross on our respective necks today) to establish a series of outposts in the interior, to serve not only as trading centers but as construction areas for the natives. “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving and instructing (Conrad 54). “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz; and by and by I learned that, most appropriately, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report for its future guidance (Conrad 58). It is in this report that the reader finds Kurtz’ real attitude toward Africa, the heart of darkness, his own, Everyman’s genetic and psychic home, is revealed. Commenting on the report Marlow recounts that “it was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: Exterminate the all the brutes!” (Conrad 84). What Kurtz truly hopes to exterminate, to deny, repress is a part of himself.
Pushing deeper and deeper into the jungle Kurtz lapses into madness and murder. Having just denied and then confronted his own darkness, “His soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you it had gone mad (Conrad 113). Kurtz’ last words, “The horror! The horror!”, (Conrad 118), sum up the Jungian insight that “from the same root that produces wild, untamed, blind instinct there grow up the natural laws and cultural forms that tame and break its pristine power. But when the animal in us is split off from consciousness by being repressed, it may easily burst out in full force, quite unregulated and uncontrolled. An outburst of this sort always ends in catastrophe – the animal destroys itself (Jung 21).
Marlow is the vessel by which we learn Kurtz’ story and it is Marlow that follows Kurtz into the jungle with the purpose of locating him for the company. There are stages to his journey, the long penetration of the dark self, are the same as Kurtz’; but because Marlow accepts and participates in the Dionysiac journey, he is not destroyed; instead he achieves and earns enlightenment, resulting in a fuller realization of himself.
Even before he began his search for Kurtz, before he took employment with the Company, Marlow had been fascinated with the prospect of exploring the jungle. On the map, he had seen the waterway into the jungle as a great snake: archetypally, as the inhabitant and messenger of the underground region, the unconscious self (Neuman 49). Conrad writes: “It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land (11).
Seeing the jungle interior as a snake, as symbolically as the unconscious, it is appropriate that Marlow should have begun his journey with the help of women, Woman, the Anima, the greatest symbol of the unconscious (Jung 21). When he applied for appointment with the Company to skipper a boat into the dark places, Marlow was rebuffed until he had help from the women: “The man said ‘My dear fellow,’ and did nothing. Then – would you believe it? – I tried the women. I, Charles Marlow, set the women to work – to get a job. Heavens! Well, you see, the notion drove me. I had an aunt, a dear enthusiastic soul. She wrote: ‘It will be delightful. I am ready to do anything, anything for you. It is a glorious idea. I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration’….I got the appointment – of course” (Conrad 12).
At the Company’s first outpost, perched on the edge of “civilization” and “jungle”, the spectacle of brutalizing and exploiting the African people appears, the Company’s version of Kurtz’ dictate “Exterminate the brutes!” Marlow describes the situation: “Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. [A] mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had drawn to die.
They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not nothing criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the green gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest (Conrad 26).
This fratricide, this white erasure of the older black brothers, is over-seen by an absolute walking vision of system, efficiency, “civilization”; near the buildings I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of getup that in the first moment, I took him for a sort of vision, I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs , alight alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand. He was amazing, and he had a penholder behind his ear (Conrad 28).
When Marlow, after delays, begins his journey into the interior, he senses that the he moves not only in space but in time – “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world” (Conrad 55). Marlow’s journey is spatial (into the African interior), temporal (back to the origins of man), and psychic (to the roots of his own unconscious) (Murfin 13). With this three tiered interior, the power is quite different than how they appear on the outside. Outside, civilization, the infant of history, dominates, and the man in the white jacket watches black men die.
As he moves nearer and nearer to Kurtz, Marlow sees three apparitions. The first is of the station-master, symbolic of the thin veil of civilization. The second is of a harlequin figure, a companion of Kurtz who had been left behind part way through Kurtz’ passage inward and who becomes Marlow’s guide on the last stage of the trek inland. It is he who leads Marlow to Kurtz. His appearance is striking. Conrad writes: “His aspect reminded me of something I had seen – something funny I had seen somewhere. As I maneuvered to get along-side, I was asking myself, ‘What does this fellow look like?’ Suddenly, I got it. He looked like a harlequin. His clothes had been made of some stuff that was brown holland probably, but it was covered with patches all over, with bright patches, blue, red, and yellow – patches on the back, patches on the front, patches on elbows, knees; colored binding around his jacket, scarlet edging at the bottom of his trousers; and the sunshine made him look extremely gay and wonderfully neat withal, because you could see how beautifully all this patching had been done (88-89).
The station-master is all patchwork because the station-master had been at the outer edge, beyond the darkness; the harlequin is part way into the darkness, a bridge between the two worlds of unconsciousness and consciousness. As harlequin, he is cousin to other figures of fun, such as the jester, the court fool, the madcap, in the history of foolery and ultimately to the trickster figure, the hobgoblin of legend and fairy tale (Campbell 85). According to Jung, outwardly people are more or less civilized, but inwardly they are still primitive (Jung 68).
The third apparition coincides with the end of Marlow’s quest for Kurtz and himself. It is a superb, blazing apparition of Woman; the grand archetype of unconsciousness; the partner of the mad Kurtz, and ultimately the goal of Marlow’s search. Beginning his quest with the aid of women, Marlow completes his exploration by seeing Her, the Unconscious. As he finally comes upon Kurtz, Conrad writes: “Dark human shapes could be made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly against the gloomy border of the forest, and near the river two bronze figures, leaning on tall spears, stood in the sunlight under fantastic head-dresses of spotted skins, warlike and still in statuesque repose. And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman.
She walked with measured steps, draped in a striped and fringed clothes, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knees, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul (102-3).
The image of the dark and passionate soul, the image of the jungle and of the unconscious itself, and she is the last image that Marlow sees as he moves out of the jungle, back to civilization with the dying Kurtz – she stands at the end and “stretched tragically her bare arms after us over the somber and glittering river (Conrad 115). Marlow finds himself unable to tell the white woman the truth of Kurtz’ madness and death – she is the antithesis of that smoldering and passionate woman in the heart of darkness. Labeled by Kurtz My Intended, she is will and consciousness, she is surrounded, encased, protected by the trappings of civilization and culture. So Marlow leaves her with a lie and her own manageable version of his death.
Drawn deeper and deeper into the interior, into his racial past, into himself, Marlow accepts his fate: “It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice,” Marlow states at the end of his journey; “I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone” (Conrad 109). Marlow even regrets that he had not gone as deep as Kurtz into the final stages of madness and confrontation with the ultimate deep. Conrad writes: “[Kurtz] had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible. Perhaps! I like to think my summing-up would not have been a world of careless contempt. Better his cry – much better. It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terror, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory! (120).
By receiving the darkness, Marlow attains enlightenment. Three times Conrad describes him as Buddha-like, symbol of wisdom (Conrad 9).
In conclusion, Heart of Darkness is about the recognition that the blackness is inherent to our inner psyche and to deny the darkness is a part of our inner psyche and to deny the blackness would be to engage in deliberating self-harm. The insight is not removed but is increased by recognition of that black self: this is the discovery of the protagonist Marlow. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad has wonderfully dramatized the “enigmatic god, the spirit of a dual nature and of paradox” (Otto 73). As the reader turns the final pages of Heart of Darkness, Marlow ceases speaking, and the Director of Companies says “We have lost the first of the ebb” (Conrad 110). Here the narrative ends, but it does not close in upon itself. On the contrary, Marlow’s words are left hanging in the air. The mystery that Conrad has opened for the reader has also been left open, and whether we approach it with pity or fear or even indifference, remains a private matter between the reader and his/her unconscious.
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